We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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So I finished reading We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves yesterday, and I’m still reeling from the surges of emotion than hit me as I tore through the last few chapters. I hardly dare to open the book again, because I’m afraid I cannot bear to let it wreck me a second time. Yet somehow I don’t think I’ll be able to give this book away to anyone until it stops whispering to me.

The story was strangely apt, somehow. I dare not say anything about its content because this story is one that is crafted true to its medium, meant to be opened page by page. But this is a book with a lot of psychology in it. I recognised many familiar terms and familiar experiments, given a spirit which they don’t have in textbooks. When the author mentioned Harry Harlow my stomach lurched. I always found that photograph of a baby monkey clinging to a fake, wire “mother” in my psychology textbooks extremely harrowing. The story is also resonant because it’s as story about every ordinary family, they ways we wound each other, the way “well-intentioned actions lead to heart-breaking consequences”. It’s a book about humanity and animality, about trying to tear through the veil that separates the conscious from the unconscious, to go back to the beginning of things, to find things lost and learning how to handle the broken pieces of things fallen apart. That last scene – Rosemary and Fern, their foreheads pressed together separated by a pane of glass, is just burned into my memory.

It’s a story that wrecked me and yet also dearly soothed me. Walking with Rosemary made me wonder if perhaps the stars will soon align for me too. If I also can begin to walk into memory – not as playing a video tape, but as trying to peel back those layers and layers of transparency that have coated each other over the years. I wonder if I can raise up the ghosts of those who I have lost, and put aside memories of those I cannot forget.

Rosemary never really has a real friend until she meets crazy Harlow, and I felt Harlow’s loss painfully when she disappeared from the story. Perhaps it is because I miss my Harlows too. There are some friends whose presence in your life is less that of a confidante and more that of a sort of trigger. Not exactly people you can pour your heart out to, but rather the ones who make things happen just by virtue of their craziness, and the way their very being challenges something deep and fundamental about you.

To put a stop to my rambling, here’s 10 of my favourite excerpts from the book:

  1. “There are moments when history and memory seem like a mist, as if what really happened matters less than what should have happened. The mist lifts and suddenly there we are, my good parents and their good children, their grateful children who pone for no reason to talk, say their good-nights with a kiss, and look forward to home on the holidays… Just for a moment, I see us that way; I see us all. Restored and repaired. Reunited. Refulgent”
  2. “In most families, there is a favourite child. Parents deny it and maybe they truly don’t see it, but it’s obvious to the children. Unfairness bothers children greatly. It’s hard to always come in second. It’s also hard to be the favourite.”
  3. “Start in the middle then, he’d answer, a shadow with the hall light behind him, and tired in the evenings the way grown-ups are. The light would reflect in my bedroom window like a star you could wish on. Skip the beginning. Start in the middle.”
  4. “And here we are, finally back in the middle where we left me, a bright-eyed undergraduate saddled with her very own arrest record and someone else’s powder-blue suitcase. The prophetic stars are hopping about the sky like fleas. One: the appearance and immediate disappearance of my mothers journals. Two: A muffled message from Lowell, the knock in the dungeon wall from an adjacent cell. Three: Harlow”
  1. “I once thought of the monkey girl as a threat only to myself. Now I see how she could blow the whole caper. So, added to the old fear of exposure, is this other fear that I’ll mess up, miscalculate just how much monkey girl to let out. There’s no data to suggest that I can make you love me whatever I do. I could be headed back to middle school, no hallways and classrooms this time, but the tabloids and the blogs instead”
  2. “Next time, I’ll put things right between my father and me. Next time, I’ll give Mom the fair share of blame for Fern… Next time, I’ll take the share that’s mine, no more, no less. Next time I’ll shut my mouth about Fern and open it about Lowell… I’d always planned to forgive Dad someday.”
  3. “No one is easier to delude than a parent; they see only what they wish to see.”
  4. [About Harry Harlow] “The baby monkeys clung pathetically o the fake, uncaring mothers, until they all turned psychotic or died. “I don’t know what he thought he’d learned about them,” Lowell said, ‘But in their short, sad little lives, they sure learned a hell a lot about him'”
  5. “It’s true that, as my brother grew larger, he also grew dangerous, same as my sister. But they’re still ours and we want them back. They’re needed here at home”
  6. “The wine was red. Mom took another sip and turned her softly sagging face away from mine. ‘I wanted you to have an extraordinary life,’ she said.”
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